Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army officer soon to be Egypt’s president, promises to remedy Egypt’s crippling fuel shortage by installing energy-efficient bulbs in every home socket, even if he has to send a government employee to screw in each one.
“I’m not leaving a chance for people to act on their own,” Mr. Sisi said in his first and most extensive television interview. “My program will be mandatory.”
Mr. Sisi, 59, disciplined and domineering, is universally expected to become Egypt’s head of state after a pro forma election scheduled to begin Monday. He has already been the nation’s paramount decision maker since he ousted Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, last summer.
Now, more than three years after the Arab Spring uprising raised hopes of a democratic Egypt, his move into the presidential palace will formally return Egypt to the rule of a paternalistic military strongman in the tradition of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
Supporters of Mr. Sisi campaigning in Cairo on Friday. Egypt’s election, which Mr. Sisi is almost certain to win, begins Monday.
KHALED ELFIQI / EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
In his long rise to power and a compressed, three-week campaign, Mr. Sisi has shown that he, too, sees himself as a morally superior father figure responsible for directing and correcting the nation, with a firm hand if needed.
“You want to be a first-class nation?” he asked of Egyptians, in a leaked recording of an off-the-record conversation with a journalist-confidant. “Will you bear it if I make you walk on your own feet? When I wake you up at 5 in the morning every day? Will you bear cutting back on food, cutting back on air-conditioners?”
“People think I’m a soft man,” he added. “Sisi is torture and suffering.”
Like his predecessors, Mr. Sisi has proved adept at guiding Egyptian history from behind the scenes. He teamed up with President Morsi to take the job of the former defense minister two summers ago, only to oust the president himself last summer. As chief of military intelligence, Mr. Sisi was also the secret architect of the strategy the generals employed during the 2011 uprisings, siding with “the people” against President Mubarak while ensuring the army stayed in control.
All but unknown until 10 months ago, Mr. Sisi was immediately elevated to the status of national hero by a broad section of the public — and all of the state and private media — because he promised order and stability after three years of upheaval. Now he will preside over the most populous and, in many ways, most influential Arab state.
He has quickly displayed a certain nostalgia for the Nasserite state dominance of the economy that set the stage for six decades of stagnation. He has proposed government projects to force down prices and profits as well as to irrigate and give away vast areas of desert. And he has expressed frankly condescending views of the public.
The military, Mr. Sisi told fellow officers in a leaked recording of a meeting last December, is “like the very big brother, the very big father who has a son who is a bit of a failure and does not understand the facts.” Urging patience with public criticism of the army, Mr. Sisi asked: “Does the father kill the son? Or does he always shelter him and say, ‘I’ll be patient until my son understands’?”
A Nation Divided
But if he likens Egyptians to his family, he will lead a nation as deeply divided as it was the day last July when he ousted and imprisoned Mr. Morsi. Security forces have since killed more than a thousand of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters at street protests and jailed tens of thousands of others. Millions more are alienated from the new government. Extremist violence has surged.
The economy teeters close to the brink. An inefficient system of energy subsidies is bankrupting the Treasury, but the low prices have become so ingrained that any reform could be explosive. In 10 months, the Egyptian government has burned through $20 billion of financial aid from supportive Persian Gulf monarchies, and it is counting on billions more for at least the next several years.
But Mr. Sisi often suggests that the problem is not the fault of the state but the failings of its people, whether a lack of industry and enterprise, a moral laxity that has tolerated rampant sexual harassment, or even the exponential growth in the population.
He recently complained to a group of young doctors that Egypt could not possibly afford to offer so many people the same level of health care the defense ministry now provides to families of officers, much less guarantee education and employment. “Why? Because there is nothing!” he shouted, urging the doctors to work harder for less.
For challenges from protests to poverty, his solutions are almost always expanding the government’s power. In an interview, he talked of unlocking the “magic wand” of Egyptians’ “self-ability,” but by “maximizing the role of the state.”
As a speaker, he is a charismatic populist. Mr. Sisi often hails the Egyptian people as the “ultimate authority” who drafted him to public office. He can speak in a style so sentimental that it seems almost romantic, cooing that the Egyptian people are “the light of my eyes,” evoking comparisons to Abdel Halim Hafez, a midcentury crooner of the Frank Sinatra-style.
“Sisi is soft and sweet, as if he is flirting with a beautiful woman,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University.
But in television interviews, he raises his voice to reprimand or silence his questioners and promises Egyptians a kind of tough love. “I will not sleep and neither will you,” Mr. Sisi said in a television interview. “We must work, night and day, without rest.”
In addition to vast government projects that would force private companies to lower both prices and profits, Mr. Sisi has proposed to distribute trucks for the unemployed to find work hauling vegetables to new markets. His pledges to irrigate vast acreage of desert for distribution to small farmers resemble schemes the government discussed or tried under both President Sadat and President Mubarak.
“The state has to be in control here,” Mr. Sisi said in the television interview, insisting the government would plan, choose “and execute.”
No Room for Dissent
Mr. Sisi says the job of president also includes improving public morals and “presenting God” correctly. He has said bluntly that as president he would take legal action against personal insults. And although a wave of protests against Mr. Morsi helped Mr. Sisi to power, he has defended the current government’s virtual prohibition of demonstrations.
“The existing dangers to the Egyptian state are much bigger than a discussion of the protest law,” he said. “Anybody who thinks otherwise wants to destroy Egypt.”
He has made no public appearances in his campaign for president. Instead, he has campaigned remotely, via television interviews and video conferences. (His campaign declined to provide an interview or answer written questions.) His television commercials say he grew up like a regular Egyptian, in the narrow streets of one of Cairo’s oldest neighborhoods, working in his father’s handicrafts shop.
Mr. Sisi’s childhood friends and neighbors say the district was then a prosperous neighborhood of middle-class traders and tradesmen. Mr. Sisi’s father, Said el-Sisi, owned a shop in the storied Khan el-Khalili bazaar and several small workshops, and he was one of the neighborhood’s biggest employers and richest men, they say.
“He always dressed in a suit and tie, and all the others wore djellabas,” said Hussein Abdel Naby, a lawyer who grew up downstairs from Mr. Sisi in a building that his father owned, referring to a traditional peasant gown worn by Egyptian men. “He was the only one who drove a Mercedes.”
Mr. Sisi’s father was a stern and intimidating figure, several residents of the neighborhood said, and Abdel Fattah’s zeal for exercise stood out from the other boys. He would hop up and down stairs to develop his calves, Mr. Abdel Naby said, or alternate reading a schoolbook with dropping to do sets of push-ups.
“He used to punish himself,” Mr. Abdel Naby said. After his father looked askance at Mr. Sisi for the vanity of his necklace and open-collared shirt, Mr. Sisi shaved his own head. “Because I know I did something wrong,” he told his friends, as Mr. Abdel Naby recalled.
Mr. Sisi’s father married a second wife and had a second family, as permitted in Islamic teachings, his neighbors and friends said. At the age of 21 Mr. Sisi became engaged to a cousin who lived across the street. His wife, mother, sisters and daughter have never worked outside the home, several friends and neighbors said. (The campaign declined to comment.)
Two of Mr. Sisi’s sons followed him into branches of Egyptian intelligence, and his daughter married the son of the new military chief of staff.
By his 20s, Mr. Sisi was already in the military and dreaming of greatness. In another leaked recording, he is heard telling his journalist-confidant, Yassir Risk, that a voice in a dream said to him, “We will give you what we have given to no other.”
In another dream, Mr. Sisi discussed premonitions with former President Anwar Sadat. “I said to him: And I know I will be the president of the republic,” Mr. Sisi recalled.
His first chance to shape history came near the end of the Mubarak era. A few months after Mr. Mubarak promoted him to head of military intelligence in 2010, General Sisi delivered a prescient report to top generals. He argued that their own interests, and Egypt’s, would soon diverge from the president’s, according to three people briefed on the discussions by General Sisi and other top military leaders.
General Sisi told the top officers that military intelligence had concluded that Mr. Mubarak was preparing to anoint his younger son, Gamal, as Egypt’s next president, perhaps as soon as the elder Mubarak’s 83rd birthday, in May 2011, these people said.
Egyptians would rise up in revolt, Mr. Sisi predicted, and the internal security forces would not be able to contain it. So Mr. Mubarak would call for help from the army, General Sisi said, according to all three independent accounts.
Mr. Sisi “told them, ‘Are we ready? How do we respond to this question?' ” recalled Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, 90, a former journalist-historian who was close to President Nasser and is now close to Mr. Sisi. “He was the one who proposed to the army that they should not back Mubarak.”
The anticipated revolt erupted five months earlier than Mr. Sisi thought, in January 2011, set off by events in Tunisia. But the generals followed precisely the plan Mr. Sisi laid out, said Mr. Nafaa, the Cairo University political scientist, who learned about Mr. Sisi’s report along with Mr. Risk at a dinner with Mr. Sisi and three other generals after the officers had finally removed Mr. Mubarak.
“The army deployed very smoothly on January 28, 2011, because they had a plan to go to the streets, and they simply moved it forward, to take advantage of the revolution,” Mr. Nafaa added.
Initially, Mr. Sisi was “keen that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist option, be given a chance,” Mr. Heikal recalled.
Photographs with Mr. Morsi show Mr. Sisi in deferential postures, looking down with his head bowed, or sitting in a slight hunch with his hands between his thighs. But Mr. Sisi now says that in private he had vehemently disagreed with Mr. Morsi. Among other points, Mr. Sisi says, he objected to Mr. Morsi’s pardon of jailed Islamist militants, whom the current government blames for the violent backlash against the takeover.
In his television interview, Mr. Sisi said that he had complained angrily to Mr. Morsi, “You are letting people out who will kill us!” But the president kept silent, Mr. Sisi said.
Mr. Sisi’s account, however, is at odds with the record. It was the top generals who released almost all of the militants even before Mr. Morsi held power. According to a tally published by the website Mada Masr, the generals released more than 850 militants, while Mr. Morsi released only 18.
Mr. Sisi and his supporters also blame Mr. Morsi for allowing Islamist militants free rein in Sinai. The army always stood ready to help the police with security, Mr. Sisi said in an interview, as it now has aggressively. “We’re responsible for it,” Mr. Sisi said, speaking on behalf of the military.
But in a leaked recording of an officers’ meeting in October 2012, Mr. Sisi said he had refused that job. “I always stress to the senior people, my mission is not to combat terrorism,” Mr. Sisi said, citing “very grave dangers” of civilian casualties. “You would be creating an enemy against you and against your country, because there will have been bad blood between you and him.” (In letters smuggled from prison, two top Morsi aides also said Mr. Sisi had refused the president’s request for military action in Sinai.)
In private meetings after the takeover, Mr. Sisi often repeated that he had tried to advise Mr. Morsi about ways to stay in office, or, later, to persuade him to accept a referendum on his continued rule, other cabinet members said. But since then Mr. Sisi has increasingly argued that the essential nature of the Brotherhood — whose party won successive free elections — poses a threat to Egypt.
“Their ideological structure makes confrontation with us inevitable,” he said in a television interview. “The ideological structure of these groups is that we are not real Muslims and they are real Muslims,” he continued. “An ideology like that cannot come back.”